Russell's Blog

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Two weeks on a folding bike

Posted by Russell on October 21, 2007 at 6:29 a.m.
Since I am now commuting to UCLA from Pasadena, I've spent a lot of time wondering how to cut down of the time, expense and misery of commuting. Most of that pondering happened while trapped somewhere on the Ventura freeway, or the perhaps on driving aimlessly around Westwood looking for a parking spot.

To that end, I've started using the Metro as much as possible. The Metro Gold Line is fantastic, and gets me from Lake Street in Pasadena to Union Station downtown in about 20 minutes (less if I catch an express). The Purple Line gets me as far as Koreatown, and this is where things start to suck. From Wilshire and Western, it's about seven miles to UCLA. During business hours, the 720 bus takes about an hour and 45 minutes to traverse this miserable stretch of urban leprosy. The worst part is Beverley Hills, which I would gleefully bulldoze if given the chance.

It's maddening. The first 22 miles of the trip take about 30-45 minutes, depending on intervals between trains. The last six and a half take three times that.

While I was riding a 720 bus packed with more people than I attended high school with, it occurred to me that 6.5 miles in 105 minutes is a little slower than four miles per hour. I could probably beat that walking on my hands.

So, I bought some new tires for my bicycle, and gave it a try. Sure enough, I passed five or six 720 busses as they sat like flatulent beached whales in the morning rush hour traffic. With all the traffic lights, it's a slow ride, but it takes about 50-60 minutes, so I'm averaging between 6.5-7.8 miles per hour. In West Los Angeles, velocities this high are known to cause Cerenkov radiation. I could go a lot faster if drivers would actually look at the road instead of staring blankly into space while driving their Range Rovers in the bike lane, parking in the crosswalk or on driving on the sidewalk to get around busses (yes, really). It would be certain death for a cyclist if all of this mayhem weren't happening at the speed one can push a loaded dumpster up a hill.

There is just one problem, though. When you're not riding it, a bicycle is miserable thing to carry. You may as well be traveling with an Alexander Calder sculpture.

So, I bought a folding bicycle :

This is a Brompton M6R. It folds up really, really tiny, and has little wheels on the bottom to roll it like a suitcase when it's folded up.

Surprisingly, the small wheels don't seem to make much of a difference with stability. The only difference, really, is that it takes a lot less torque to turn the front wheel, even at speed. This makes it feel "twitchy" at first, but the sensation goes away after about twenty seconds of riding. The Bromptons also have really strong breaks. You have to be careful not to pitch yourself over the handlebars.

Compared to my road bike, the Brompton is almost alarmingly responsive. This makes it ideal for crowded situations -- it's easy to avoid unexpected obstacles, squeeze through narrow spaces, and stop suddenly. When it's folded up, it's nice to be able to walk down the train platform without goring people with the pedals or stabbing them with the quick release levers.

The Brompton has two main disadvantages. First, it's a little on the heavy side. I didn't shell out for the titanium version, so it weighs in at 23 pounds. This turns out not to matter very much, except when lugging it up long flights of stairs. The second disadvantage is that I must answer a never-ending stream of questions about it.

I will write a more detailed review of the bicycle itself in a few weeks.

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